October 20, 2021

High school athletics in a ‘holding pattern’

Various sports balls/equipment stock

The high school sports season is already delayed until at least Sept. 21, but even with the extra time, athletic directors are spinning their wheels while waiting for state guidance on how to keep athletes — and spectators — safe from COVID-19.

“We’ve been in a holding pattern in what they’re going to allow, or not going to allow,” said Todd James, the athletic director for Marathon Central School District. “Nobody knows what the governor will say in August.”

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association delayed the season until Sept. 21, in a July 16 announcement. But practices and conditioning usually precede the season by several weeks, so a Sept. 21 start isn’t as far off as it sounds.

“We’re up in the air on what to do next,” said Groton Athletic Director Mark Triolo. ”We have no clue what we’re doing.”

Coaches can’t meet with athletes; athletes can’t practice. The game is called waiting.

The issues vary from district to district, and sport to sport. Some feature much close contact, like football and competitive cheerleading. Others not as much.

Equipment will need to be disinfected, as well as locker rooms, training areas and playing spaces. Social distancing will need to be practiced — certainly a challenge in contact sports — and protocols established.

Some high schools began trying to adapt early. Homer’s athletics started last spring with simple changes: not sharing water bottles, limiting use of water fountains and disinfecting surfaces regularly, said Homer Athletic Director Todd Lisi.

Marathon has already purchased masks for its athletes, James said.

But many what-ifs remain: Transportation is a big one. How does a school transport an entire team safely? A Marathon varsity soccer team could have 20 players, James said. Football teams in Homer and Cortland could have up to 40, Lisi and Wood added.

“The way we travel isn’t going to be the same,” Lisi said. “We have to make the athletes the most comfortable when they return.”

Does that mean more buses? More drivers? Do the smaller districts have enough of each to transport teams, as well as take students home after school?

Maybe parents could transport kids, Lisi suggested. But that gets more difficult with greater distance, and some counties may have different guidelines.

“If they all have different guidelines, we’re in a bind,” Triolo said.

Professional sports are playing without spectators. High schools may do the same, or allow only families to watch. Outdoor events like football and soccer are one thing, Lisi said, but what about volleyball or other inside sports?

Spectators, inside or out, can get excited, Wood said. “It will be hard to practice social distancing with large crowds.”

“If they’re yelling and cheering, spit flies everywhere and that could lead to people being 12 feet apart from each other and possibly taped lines to emphasize space,” he added.

Maybe there will be no fall sports, at all, athletic directors suggested.

“In an ideal world, we’d like to have athletes and coaches back, but restrictions will be in place,” James said.

However, Triolo said he doesn’t see a season happening. “Right now, we’re not sure if we’re having sports.”